want to meet with the artist? You can request for a meeting to discuss a commision for view the available original paintings

Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt
Magazine Antiques, Nov, 2004 by Pamela A. Ivinski

Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed something a bit strange about a number of the illustrations for this article: they appear to have been printed in reverse. If you carefully examine the lower left corner of Plate II, The Banjo Lesson, you will find the work is signed "Mary Cassatt"--but backwards. If you were able to see the picture in person, you would discover that the signature does in fact read backwards. That is because the artworks featured in this article (except for Pls. I and VI) are actually counterproofs (reverse impressions) of pastels by the American-born impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. Forty-eight counterproofs never before displayed publicly are featured in an exhibition currently on view at Adelson Galleries in New York City. (1) Among other revelations, the exhibition includes seven compositions that will be new to even the most enthusiastic Cassatt admirer, for they were made from unrecorded pastels.

The counterproof process has rarely been studied as a discrete area, and little attention has been paid to the counterproofs of Cassatt's pastels. A counterproof is created by placing a damp sheet of blank paper over an artwork, such as a pastel or a not-yet-dry etching, and applying pressure, usually by running the sheets through a printing press. The pressure causes a mirror impression of the original image to be transferred to the moistened paper: Thus, the damp sheet that was laid over and pressed against Cassatt's pastel The Banjo Lesson (Pl. I) became imprinted with the counterproof image that is now the work illustrated as Plate II. Surprisingly, more than one counterproof can be pulled from a single work, as with Plates III and IV, both reverse impressions of the Cassatt pastel entitled Baby Charles Looking Over His Mother's Shoulder (No. 2), last known to be in a private collection. Moreover, it is often difficult to tell that a counterproof was taken from a pastel, because to the untutored eye the original pastel's surface remains largely unaffected.

The counterproof process has long been employed by printmakers, for the reversed image that results is useful for comparison with the preparatory drawing or plate from which a print is being made. Eventually, some artists began to hand color counterproofs of engravings after their works. In the case of the German artist-naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), for example, these handtinted counterproofs quite closely resemble her delicate watercolors of flowers. (3) Other artists also made counterproofs of their chalk drawings and pastels as well as paintings in watercolor and gouache. During the rococo period in France, many painters, including Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) and Francois Boucher (1703-1770), experimented with chalk drawings, pulling counterproof impressions and at times reworking them with chalk additions.

Through the first half of the nineteenth century, however, painters who aspired to the highest levels in France were discouraged both from working with the chalks and pastels explored by rococo artists and from making prints. This began to change in the early 1860s, at the same moment that Cassatt was beginning her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1862 the French art dealer Alfred Cadart (1828-1875) collaborated with the printer Auguste Delatre (1822-1907) to form the Societe des aquafortistes (Society of Etchers) in Paris, with the aim of reviving the concept of original prints by painters. (4) Cadart published original etchings by many of the best painters of the period, such as Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). In a similar vein, the Societe des Pastellistes was organized in Paris in 1870, seeking to bring that largely forgotten medium back to prominence.

By the mid-1870s in France, etching and pastels had begun to flourish in an artistic climate that also saw the formation of the impressionists as a group. When Cassatt was asked to join these renegade artists, around 1877, she had already rejected the dark-toned and tightly painted style promoted by the Academie des beaux-arts in favor of the light-filled and spontaneously brushed renderings of modern life also preferred by her new colleagues. In the late 1870s she began to investigate etching, spurred on by her friend and fellow impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who intended to publish a new journal featuring his prints alongside Cassatt's and those of another impressionist, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). (5) Although the journal never came to fruition, Cassatt went on to create a number of innovative prints over the next few years, while also playing an important part in reestablishing pastel as a serious medium for artists.

After the dissolution of the impressionist group in 1886, Cassatt immersed herself in printmaking with renewed vigor, and completed a group of exquisite drypoint etchings in the late 1880s that were described by critics as "precise and supple" and evincing "a distinguished simplicity of manner." (6) She exhibited these drypoints with another new group of artists, the Societe des Peintres-Graveurs, whose members, patrons, and critical supporters were devoted to expanding the technical parameters of, as well as the audience for, original prints by painter-printmakers. In 1890, inspired by the extensive temporary exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the Ecole des beaux-arts in Paris, Cassatt undertook an ambitious series of color prints. The result, popularly known as the "Set of Ten," was not only one of the first examples of color etching of the era but remains enshrined as one of the greatest accomplishments of nineteenth-century graphic art. (7) Indeed, when this series was shown in New York in 1895, the critic Montague Marks (b. 1847) declared, "We do not hesitate to say that these prints will be reckoned among the most artistic of the century."

With her Set of Ten color prints Cassatt became one of the first Western artists to assimilate the nonnaturalistic style of Japanese art. Her work now shared many features of a new aesthetic that had come to the fore since the final impressionist exhibition in 1886. The translation of nature so highly valued during the late 1870s and early 1880s was counterpointed by an art that probed interior states of mind and the mysteries of existence. Less concerned with the vagaries of changing light conditions or the telling physiognomic gesture, modernist artists adapted certain formal devices, often derived from Japanese art, for the purposes of this "idealist" or "symbolist" art. Many post-impressionist artists abandoned the Western system of perspective and began to juxtapose decorative patterns, utilize large patches of unmodulated color, render lines and contours with a sense of taut energy, and employ tones for their emotional rather than their descriptive value.

Cassatt's color prints, with their spatial compression, play of abstract patterns, bold blocks of color, and arabesque lines, fulfilled the conditions of this new symbolist art. They may have even influenced a number of young upstart artists, including those associated with the group calling themselves the Nabis (prophets), among them Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), and Maurice Denis (1870-1943). In fact, Cassatt's Set of Ten ushered in a decade of making color prints in France that would become renowned as a high point in the history of the graphic arts. From the primitivistic woodblock images of Tahitian nudes by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to the exuberant lithographs depicting the Parisian demimonde by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), the 1890s saw a remarkable efflorescence of experimentation and achievement in making color prints.

The yearly exhibitions of the Peintres-Graveurs group, with which Cassatt had briefly exhibited in the late 1880s, had been hosted by the Galerie Durand-Ruel of Paris, her primary dealer from the early 1890s. Though Durand-Ruel demonstrated great commitment to the painter-printmaker concept, slow sales led the gallery to abandon its sponsorship of the Peintres-Graveurs exhibitions after 1893. Within three years, Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), a new presence on the Parisian gallery scene, stepped in to promote l'estampe originale--the print considered to be every bit as original and expressive as a painting--and to remake the market by commissioning and publishing as well as exhibiting these painters' prints.

Vollard, best known as the first dealer to actively promote the works of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) when these artists were considered too controversial by other galleries, made his initial foray into publishing in 1896. A volume comprised of twenty-two prints, mostly lithographs, by artists including Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Edvard Munch (1863-1944), and Odilon Redon (1840-1916), in addition to Bonnard, Vuillard, and others, accompanied an exhibition of works by forty-five artists in total. From this moment, Vollard actively encouraged his favorite painters to experiment in printmaking, and with color lithography in particular: Many of these artists were assisted in the complicated lithographic process by the master printer Auguste Clot (1858-1936), who worked under Vollard's supervision. In some cases, Clot provided more than purely technical assistance, as when helping in the transcription of color areas to the multiple stones necessary to print color lithographs by artists such as Redon and Cezanne.

Bibliography for "Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt"
Pamela A. Ivinski "Art in a Mirror: The Counterproofs of Mary Cassatt". Magazine Antiques. Nov 2004. FindArticles.com. 15 Sep. 2006. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1026/is_5_166/ai_n9505402


Top of Page

Yong Chen  Web 

Connect with Us on FaceBook, Youtube, Twitter and mySpace YouTube MySpace FaceBook Twitter